Monkeypox likely isn't much of a threat to the public, a White House official says
The risk posed to the U.S. general public from ongoing outbreaks of monkeypox cases reported in Europe, the U.K. and Canada is low, a White House official told Morning Edition on Monday.
Dr. Raj Panjabi, Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the National Security Council, says the fewer than 10 cases seen in the United States so far have not been severe — "flu-like symptoms and a rash which can be painful but resolves in two to four weeks" — and aren't likely to get much worse.
"Historically in countries with weaker health care systems less than 1% of patients have died from this milder strain," Panjabi said. "We have access to vaccines and even treatments here in the U.S., and so the risk we believe is substantially lower."
In dozens of cases from other U.S. outbreaks over the past 20 years, all patients fully recovered, he said.
So far in the U.S., one case of monkeypox has been confirmed in Massachusetts. A few more are suspected in New York, Florida and Utah, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The cases all involve people who have recently travelled abroad.
"We're in the early days of this response," said Capt. Jennifer McQuiston, deputy director of the CDC's division of high consequence pathogens and pathology, at a briefing. "It's likely that there are going to be additional cases reported in the United States."
The virus usually spreads from person to person through sustained, skin-to-skin contact with someone with rashes or lesions.
"What we're talking about here is close contact. It's not a situation where if you're passing someone in the grocery store, they're going to be at risk for monkeypox," McQuiston said.
And while anyone can contract or spread the virus, health officials say many of the people affected identify as gay or bisexual men.
"Monkeypox appears to be circulating globally in parts of the gay community," says Dr. John Brooks, medical epidemiologist with the CDC's division of HIV prevention.
In the recent cases, Brooks says the rash "is showing up in different parts of the body than we'd typically expect to see it," in some cases in the genital area. He wants health care providers to be aware that people coming in for a sexually transmitted disease evaluation may need to be checked for monkeypox, if there's been an exposure.
Read more about monkeypox outbreaks, and why health officials have concerns despite the low number of cases.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK, so what are we talking about when we talk about monkeypox? Public health officials are tracking a few cases in the United States of a disease for which there is a vaccine. So how worried should we be, and what does it mean? Raj Panjabi joins us next. He's senior director at the National Security Council at the White House. He leads the White House pandemic office there. Welcome to the program.
RAJ PANJABI: Thank you for having me on, Steve.
INSKEEP: First, for those who aren't familiar, how serious is monkeypox?
PANJABI: Well, the risk to the general public is low, Steve, and here's why. The cases reported amongst Americans so far have been limited to those who've traveled to affected countries or have had very close contact with symptomatic patients. And so far, the cases we've seen have not been severe. The majority of infected individuals have flu-like symptoms and a rash, which can be painful but resolves in two to four weeks. And historically, in countries with weaker health care systems, less than 1% of patients have died from this milder strain.
As you noted, we have access to vaccines and even treatments here in the U.S. And so the risk, we believe, is substantially lower. In fact, when Americans were infected in 2021 and in an outbreak in 2003, everyone fully recovered. And the current confirmed case in Massachusetts - I was just in touch with the doctors there on Saturday - is reported to be in stable condition.
INSKEEP: I appreciate you noting these past cases that Americans were infected because I don't even remember them. I will presume that it did not become a major public health crisis in those earlier cases.
PANJABI: Well, that's correct. There were several dozen cases in the 2003 outbreak. Some prairie dogs were infected by an animal that had come over from West Africa. And - but because of outbreak measures and control measures, everyone fully recovered.
INSKEEP: What precautions should the public take, if any?
PANJABI: So it's important, you know, as President Biden has said, to be vigilant, to - we're going to continue monitoring this carefully and remain prepared. The CDC has asked doctors to look for and report any cases. And if you are showing symptoms of monkeypox, we ask that you please contact your health care provider immediately.
INSKEEP: Can I just ask - people on Twitter, as maybe you know, are already eager to politicize this, Twitter being a very political space. I saw an early tweet over the weekend from somebody vowing not to take the monkeypox vaccine, even though nobody's trying to make them take the vaccine, so far as I know. And that raised a question for me. We've just been through the bulk of a pandemic where the public health response has been extremely politicized. Have you learned anything from that experience about how to give public health advice in a way that is hard to make partisan?
PANJABI: Well, I think, first of all, we have to take infectious disease threats seriously. And our administration has done that from Day 1. The president kept his promise and restored the White House pandemic office. And we respect the science and coordinate across the U.S. government's effort to prevent and respond to infectious diseases, including monkeypox. So that's point one, is to really respect the science and coordinate across departments and agencies.
The other important thing is to ensure that we're playing our role as a federal government. We have already worked to secure sufficient supply of effective treatments and vaccines to prevent those exposed from contracting monkeypox and treating people who've been affected. And the way the science tells us, Steve, that this outbreak can be brought to an end is through identification and isolation of people infected and vaccination of those people who've been exposed. And that's the approach we're taking. So we're going to continue working with local, state and international health officials to detect cases, ensure vaccines and treatments are easily available and determine the source of this outbreak so we can stop it.
INSKEEP: But my question is whether you feel you've learned how to communicate better with people who are going to be suspicious and who are going to be susceptible to conspiracy theories.
PANJABI: I think it's important to ensure that we express empathy with folks when they have anxieties and fears and that we ensure that the science, the - is being explained in an up-to-date way and we explain where we have some uncertainty, where the science is not yet telling us answers. So that is critical. And I - and we will continue to remain transparent and open in that way in - during this outbreak.
INSKEEP: Dr. Raj Panjabi of the White House pandemic office, we really appreciate it.
PANJABI: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.